College of Southern Idaho
Rules of Visual Aids
A Step-By-Step Approach

Visual aids are types of speech support that are obviously visual instead of verbal. This could be a chart, example, picture, model, etc. (see the text on page 330 for a complete list).

Using visual aids when speaking can give the audience another dimension with which to grasp information. Visual aids can add variety and interest; visual aids certainly appeal to visual learners. However, visual aids should not be used 'just for the sake of having a visual aid........' They can also be distracting, cumbersome, annoying, or at the very least, unnecessary. As such, visual aids should be used sparingly and with the utmost of caution. When deciding whether or not to use a visual aid, a speaker should use the following rules:

1. Simplicity: Never use a complicated visual aid. A general rule of thumb to follow is to never have more than 1-3 pieces of information on any one visual aid. Your audience won’t be able to process any more information and you don’t want to “overload” them.

2. Size: It doesn't matter how fabulous the visual aid is if the person in the back row can’t read it. Visual aids must be big enough for everyone to comfortably see the content.

3. Attractiveness: Attorneys don’t take crayon-scrawled diagrams into court, so you shouldn’t rely on such modes of communication either. Your visual aids need to be very professional in both content and appearance.

4. Appropriateness: “Shocking” or “offending” an audience with a visual aid is never a good idea. At the very least, they’ll remember the visual aid, but not the speech. Always check if you have any concerns in this area.

5. Reliability: Make certain you can rely on your visual aids. Pets, people, automated contraptions and the like, are notorious for knowing exactly when to let you down. So make certain everything you use is very reliable.

6. Practiced: ALWAYS practice with your visual aids before the speech. They take a lot of time, coordination, and (sometimes) technical know-how, so it is very important that you have practiced so you have all of these items under control.

7. Add to (not distract from) the speech: Visual aids should help you to achieve the purpose of the speech, not overwhelm the speech. Make sure they are helping you.

8. Adhere to the idea of progressive revelation: Progressive revelation is the idea that we as an audience should never see a visual aid until you are ready to reference it. You don’t want the audience to be distracted by any additional information, so cover the visual aids until you are ready to use them.

If you can strictly adhere to these rules, then you probably have a very useful visual aid. If you can't, then your visual aid is going to hurt your presentation more than help your presentation.

A cautionary tale of PowerPoint usage.......

In today's technology-happy society, one has to look no further than most PowerPoint presentations (or any other presentational software, for that matter......) to find prime examples of visual aid use run amuck.

While presentational software can certainly assist a good speaker, there is a boatload of difference between a 'good speech' and a 'good PowerPoint.' In fact, the nifty features of PowerPoint make it almost too easy to violate the rules listed above. Spinning graphics, singing lists, and a zillion font colors can violate rules 1-8 faster than a good-old-fashioned poster ever could.

I would caution against PowerPoint for these reasons.  However, if you feel you need a PowerPoint presentation for this speech, make sure it is presenting VISUAL information and not VERBAL information.  In a 5-9 minute speech, there really should not be a reason that your audience needs to see ANY text.  The information that they receive should be visual (pictures, slides, graphs, etc.) but a bulleted list of your speech doesn't offer anything new that you aren't saying.